Sniffing Out Leukemia?

3 doctorsOK Ladies – here’s a question for you.   If you suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis who do you go and see?

(a)  An allergist

(b)  An oncologist

(c)  A hematologist

If you answered (a) you’re probably feeling pretty confident right now.  After all the more common term for seasonal allergic rhinitis is hayfever and that’s something best managed by an allergist.  Right?

Not so fast! Maybe (b) or (c) would have been better choices.  You see, a team of scientists looking into the interplay of the immune system and cancer have just found a link between a history of airborne allergies – in particular those to plants, grass and trees – with risk of blood cancers in women.

Notably, the study did not find the same association in men, which suggests a possible gender-specific role in chronic stimulation of the immune system that may lead to the development of hematologic cancers.

The findings were published online last week ahead of the December print issue of the American Journal of Hematology.

allergic rhinitisTo the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study to suggest important gender differences in the association between allergies and hematologic malignancies,” says Mazyar Shadman, MD, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

According to Shadman, who led the research, the immune system’s potential role in the cause of cancer is a focus of intense scientific interest. “If your immune system is over-reactive, then you have problems; if it’s under-reactive, you’re going to have problems. Increasing evidence indicates that dysregulation of the immune system, such as you find in allergic and autoimmune disorders, can affect survival of cells in developing tumors.”

The study included a large sample of men and women aged 50-76 years old from western Washington from the VITamins And Lifestyle (VITAL) cohort study. Participants answered a 24-page questionnaire that focused on: (i) health history and cancer risk factors, (ii) medication and supplement use, and (iii) diet. Participants provided information on age, race/ethnicity, education, smoking, diet (fruit and vegetable intake), and other lifestyle characteristics, self-rated health, medical history, and family history of leukemia or lymphoma.

History of asthma and allergies was also taken, including allergies to plants, grasses or trees; mold or dust; cats, dogs or other animals; insect bites or stings; foods; and medications.  Of the 79,300 VITAL participants who filled out the questionnaires, more than 66,000 individuals were selected after eliminating those who had a prior history of malignancies other than non-melanoma skin cancers and missing information on baseline cancer history.

Participants were then followed for eight years until they either withdrew from the study, moved away, had a cancer diagnosis other than hematologic malignancy or non-melanoma skin cancer, or died.

seer_logoIncidence of hematologic malignancies and other cancers was identified via the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) cancer registry of western Washington.

Of the participants, 681 developed a hematologic malignancy during the follow-up period. These participants were more likely to have two or more first-degree relatives with a family history of leukemia or lymphoma, to be less active and rank their health status as low.

A history of allergies to airborne antigens was associated with a higher risk of hematologic malignancies. The most statistically significant association was seen with allergies to plants, grass and trees.

cat allergyThere was also an increased risk of plasma-cell neoplasms for participants who reported a history of allergies to cats, dogs or other animals. Plasma-cell neoplasms are conditions, both cancerous and noncancerous, in which the body makes too many plasma cells.

When stratified by gender, the incidence of blood cancers in response to these allergens was increased in women but not in men. The reason for this is as yet unknown.

However, Shadman and colleagues warn, “Given the limited number of cases within each sub-type of hematologic cancer, the risk estimates need to be interpreted with caution … and the possibility of chance finding due to multiple testing should be recognized.”

Even so, if you’re a women with allergies, you may want to keep a close eye on your blood work.

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Pine Powder Puts an End to Sneezing

According to researchers at the University of Gothenburg, the end may be in sight for allergy sufferers.  Patients plagued by the misery of seasonal allergic rhinitis, better known as hay fever, can be cured, thanks to a powder derived from pine trees.

Cellulose nasal sprays like Nasaleze and Nasal Ease, have been on the market for years, but there wasn’t scientific evidence they worked – until now.

Now in this latest study, scientists found that the pine tree powder forms a barrier on the mucous membrane when puffed into the nose, filtering out allergens such as tree and flower pollen.

The cellulose powder has no adverse effects, and this fact makes it a particularly attractive treatment for children,” said study author Dr. Nils Aberg, Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics.

The double blind, placebo-controlled  study, was carried out during the birch pollen season and involved 53 children and adolescents aged 8 – 18 years with allergies to pollen. Participants puffed the pine-tree derived cellulose powder in the nose three times daily for four weeks. They also took a daily dose of an oral antihistamine.
Pollen levels were measured every day and were subsequently analyzed in relation to the symptoms reported by the children. Patients or their parents were reminded to report their symptom scores using daily SMS messages sent to their mobile phones.
Results showed a statistically significant reduction in total symptom scores from the nose.  Further data for the study, published in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, came from past unpublished statistics of pollen levels collected for 31 years at the same location in Gothenburg, from 1979 to 2009.

Dr. Aberg added: “We showed that the nasal symptoms of the children were significantly reduced in those who used the cellulose powder. The best effect was obtained at low to moderate concentrations of pollen”.

Word on Health asked leading allergist, Dr. Bill Storms for his reaction to this study.  He told us, “It appears that the  waxy coat of the pine tree pollen might line the inside of the nose after sniffing it and  this might prevent other pollens from getting into the mucus membranes. However, I note that patients were asked to do this three times a day and I’m not sure how many will do this.  I also wonder if there are any long term effects of putting cellulose in the nose.”

As we’ve said so many times before, further studies are needed.